St. Matthew’s Youth Experiencing Hospitality, Resourcefulness in the Dominican

February 27, 2015

by Jillian DiPersio, Windham High School Intern

This week St. Matthew’s Parish of Windham is taking students on a mission trip under the direction of priest-in-residence Father Brian Kennedy.  Father Brian is a Redemptorist missionary who has spent much of his career in remote locations of the Dominican Republic.  This is his fourth mission trip in the three years he has been in New Hampshire, taking students and community members there to lend a helping hand and experience the hospitality, simplicity and resourcefulness of Dominican culture.

Catechetical leader of St. Matthew’s Sandy Gibbons helped Father Brian organize the trip.  She explained that the mission trip is broken into two parts over two weeks.  The first group arrived in Santo Domingo and traveled seven hours to the remote village of Rancho Valdez on Friday, Feb. 13.  As this trip took place over the Massachusetts school vacation, the group was comprised of students from Central Catholic High School.

“The first week our goal is to build an aqueduct in a very remote location,” explained Gibbons.  “We have an engineer from Exeter who’s coming with us, David Johnston, who has designed a very simple aqueduct … we’re using just gravity to bring fresh water to one place where the village can get water,” she said.

Additionally, this first group traveled to surrounding areas to conduct eye and medical examinations.  With the help of optometrist Dr. Burns of Londonderry the group learned how to perform basic eye exams.  Gibbons said they learned how to have a person “look at the chart, figure out if somebody is nearsighted, farsighted, and we actually do have a little kit of the lenses just to kind of gauge where they are.”  They then had the patient try on a few pairs of glasses “and when they smile,” they had the right pair.

The people in these remote villages have no medical care, so by conducting basic medical screenings the group hopes to “establish a basic health record … flag the people that we know need to see a doctor and make sure that they see them at the next trip,” said Gibbons.

Students will work with both the team constructing the aqueduct and conducting the medical exams.  Gibbons said that this experience will be indispensible to students looking into medical careers because the trip is “very public-health oriented, which not a lot of students get exposed to.”

On Friday, Feb. 20, the students from Massachusetts went home and the group from New Hampshire flew in to Santo Domingo before traveling to La Aventura.  While continuing the eye and medical examinations that began the first week, this group’s goal was to restore the Redemptorist school there.

Gibbons described La Aventura as a school “in the mountains that takes kids from all the surrounding areas.  They come on Monday morning, they sleep there during the week … and then they go home on the weekends.”  While this area has a good water supply, they are without a reliable source of energy.  The group will be installing a micro-hydro power generator, which will allow students and teachers to charge laptops and other electronic devices.

Gibbons continued, “We’re bringing down a number of iPads … (that Father Brian) loaded with instructional videos and movies in Spanish to broaden their horizons, so like a virtual library.”  On the weekends students will be able to bring these devices home and share them with their families, helping connect the people of the Dominican Republic with the rest of the world.

Above all Gibbons stressed the importance of person-to-person contact during these trips.  During the second leg of the trip students from both Windham High School and Exeter High School will be working alongside youth from the Dominican Republic to help restore the school.  Gibbons said they brought items such as jump ropes and soccer balls.  “You don’t have to speak Spanish to say ‘Let’s play,’” said Gibbons.

Conor Leland, a WHS junior who is currently on the trip, said that he was “excited for the journey” He also explained that, as a student musician, his goal is to spread his passion for music to children in the Dominican Republic.  Prior to the trip, Leland raised money and “purchased 50 recorders … I wanted to give them something they could learn quickly.”  He said he was most looking forward to “meeting these kids” and says, “If I could get one person to be excited about music that would be a mission accomplished.”

Gibbons said that she hopes students will “find that we are providing some necessary things (for people in the Dominican Republic) but they’re not unhappy, they’re not desperate … and in some ways they’re so much wiser about life, so that’s what they give us.  To me that’s much more valuable than jump ropes and soccer balls.”  She added, “It’s a fabulous experience, hard to describe, and when they come back, you just see everything in a completely different perspective.”

Elisabeth Pope, a WHS senior who went on the trip last year, recounted, “It was really eye-opening to see how life is so different in the Dominican Republic than it is here.  People live completely differently, and without things that we always take for granted.  The people that we stayed with were so generous, and they would give us food, water and shelter even though they didn’t have much.”